After Many Years Steeped in the Elements, Naturalist Retires

The following story originally appeared in the Geauga County Maple Leaf. Our thanks to the Maple Leaf for permission to republish the article here.

Naturalist Judy Barnhart has shared her love and curiosity for nature throughout her career — educating, inspiring and earning the title “botany and geology queen” from her Geauga Park District peers.

“My favorite park is Swine Creek Reservation as it not only has our maple sugaring sugarbush, but has the best wildflower trail in the entire park district, the Valley Trail,” Barnhart said during a recent interview.

Barnhart retired March 31 after a three-decade career as a Geauga Park District naturalist who enlightened others in botany, geology and all things nature.

“She is a ray of sunshine and is such a special part of our naturalist department family,” said John Kolar, Geauga Park District chief naturalist. “Her presence, knowledge and her contagious smile will be greatly missed. Looking at Judy, you wouldn’t guess that she is even close enough to retirement age.”

When Barnhart began her career in 1989, there were only two naturalists with four or five open parks.

“We did one or two public programs a month,” Barnhart said. “Today, there are 12 people in the naturalist department, including the special events and volunteer coordinators, and we have 22 open parks, plus many preserves, and do over 30 programs a month for all ages.”

Her interest in nature sprouted early, growing up in Mentor, as her family belonged to The Holden Arboretum in Kirtland.

“My favorite area was the wildflower garden,” Barnhart recalled. “As I got older, my next door neighbor and I would ride our bikes to the arboretum for the day, to hike in the ravines, taking lunch with us. My favorite plant was the horsetails that came apart in sections.”

During her years with the park district, Barnhart became a Red Cross canoe instructor, teaching introduction to canoeing every year. In the winters, she shared her love of cross-country skiing by teaching an introductory course.

Barnhart spent time at Swine Creek Reservation overseeing maple-sugaring programming and became active with the Maple Syrup Producers of Northeast Ohio.

“I am proud to say that I hired Judy 29 years ago early in my tenure as chief naturalist,” said longtime Geauga Park District Naturalist Dan Best.

Best said Barnhart is a core member of the Northeast Ohio Native Plant Society, serving in various leadership positions, including president.

“Her park programs in tree, fern and wildflower identification and lore were real standouts,” Best said. “As for geology, I think that Judy always recognized the direct relationship between geology and botany with rock and soil types as a major determining factor for the types of plants that grow where they do.”

He added, “She understood that these two natural sciences are inseparable and taken together, all the more intriguing.”

Kolar, who has worked with Barnhart for 18 years, said she is special in so many ways and has learned so many things from her.

“My natural history knowledge base has increased tremendously as a result of working with Judy,” Kolar said. “She can always be counted on to share her natural history knowledge with our naturalist staff, volunteers and park patrons. She is a gem of nature knowledge and true gem of a person.”

Despite a long career doing what she loved, Barnhart’s life has not been without its challenges.

She suffered a stroke Aug. 20, 2011 — the opening day of Observatory Park in Montville Township — paralyzing her left side and limiting her computer use.

However, it has not limited her appreciation for nature and sharing.

“Through all that Judy has been through, she has maintained a good attitude and can always be counted on to lend a helping hand,” Kolar said.

That sunny attitude was apparent on a recent hike in Barnhart’s second favorite park, The Rookery in Munson Township, as she periodically paused to educate on plants and interurban railroad history.

“Once the park acquired the Rookery property that contained the interurban junction, an electric rail line that ran through the county, my interest in the interurban was discovered,” Barnhart said. “After arranging an exhibit of interurban memorabilia at the Meyer Center, we hosted a panel discussion of interurban aficionados.”

Three-hundred people showed up, some listened through the windows while others watched on a TV in the lobby as it was being taped.

“The Interurban Historical Society became organized from that initial program,” Barnhart said.

Kolar said Barnhart’s many years of experience as a naturalist have been a “valuable asset” to the district.

“Take some time this spring to enjoy Swine Creek Reservation and the other park trails. They are peaceful and energizing after a stressful or hectic day at work. Leave only footprints. Take only pictures and memories. I’ll see you on the trails enjoying the flowers.”

“She has been a true gift to our organization,” he added. “Our park (district is) a much better place as a result of Judy’s years of public service.”

Barnhart said when her husband, Gary, retires, she would like to visit more of the country’s beautiful parks and hopes her family, including their two sons, Brad and Sam, will get out more and enjoy Geauga’s parks.

Barnhart concluded the interview with a parting token of advice:

“Take some time this spring to enjoy Swine Creek Reservation and the other park trails. They are peaceful and energizing after a stressful or hectic day at work. Leave only footprints. Take only pictures and memories. I’ll see you on the trails enjoying the flowers.”

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